Last month (“Battle of the benefits: Sick leave vs. PTO,” March 19), I asked readers to weigh in on consolidated paid time off (PTO) plans vs. plans with separate vacation and sick leave. Proponents of both systems had some passionate and persuasive views.

Fans of consolidated PTO like the flexibility of being able to use their leave for any purpose without explanation — especially useful when seeking treatment for a condition they’d rather keep private. In particular, child-free workers in good health seem to prefer having the freedom to use their entire leave for vacation, instead of having unused sick hours piling up.

By contrast, workers with children or health concerns seem to prefer having sick leave that accumulates separately from vacation leave — especially if the sick leave is allowed to carry over from year to year, providing a cushion in case of surgery or serious illness. They also argue that it benefits public health because workers with leave that can be taken only for medical reasons are more likely to use it to stay home when ill (I suspect these workers also may be more likely to use it for preventive-care appointments and checkups).

But whatever your preference, the true benefit of any leave policy lies in how flexible the employer is about granting it. As the next reader’s question shows, some are more flexible than others:

Reader: I recently joined an elder-housing company that seemed to be a progressive and compassionate employer … until I suffered a bout of intestinal distress and called in sick the next day. My supervisor informed me that it is company policy to require a doctor’s note for an illness-related absence of a single day! As a new employee, I am not yet eligible for any leave, so this was a day without pay — and with a $50 penalty (co-pay required by my insurance) for an unnecessary medical visit. Your thoughts on the wisdom and consequences of such a policy?

Karla: Employers often reserve the right to ask for doctor’s notes for absences exceeding a certain period, or when there’s a pattern suggesting abuse — calling in “sick” every Friday, for example. But they must be careful to apply the policy uniformly and to avoid asking questions that run afoul of state privacy laws or the Americans With Disabilities Act, says employment attorney Carla Murphy of Duane Morris.

While your employer may be acting on legitimate concerns about leave abuse or ensuring adequate daily staffing, requiring a doctor’s note for a single day’s absence is “very rare and, in my opinion, overboard,” says Murphy, given that most people don’t seek a doctor’s care for brief illnesses. It’s also counterproductive if the hassle of shlepping to a doctor’s office discourages sick workers from staying away from colleagues and clients — or if resentment inspires them to take more time off than they ordinarily would have.


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